Francis Meyrick

A Blip on the Radar (Part 24B) “What I mean is that some people do stupid shit… “

Posted on October 24, 2010

A Blip on the Radar

Part 24(B): “What I mean is that some people do stupid shit…”

My new plan, formulated in all sincerity, was to postpone further flights until we got into port.
I reasoned that perhaps he was getting so stressed up because he was (literally) at sea. I thought that if we put him back in a more familiar land flying environment, that this pilot would fly better. He was after all, a qualified Commercial Helicopter Pilot. It should be possible -so I thought- to get him back up to Commercial Standards of flying first, and THEN get him checked out on landing on a Tuna Boat. It sounds simple, when you say it like that. Accordingly, I put my Master Plan to him the next day.
“Just relax, and we’ll get you sorted out when we hit Wewak, in Papua New Guineau. We should be there end of next week…”
He was not overjoyed at the delay, frowned a bit, but in the end he acquiesced in my decision.
Little did I know that a whole lot more adventures awaited us…

We moored in the harbor at Wewak with a full load of fish later the next week. We would be there for at least 3 to 4 days. Which is the time required to transship the catch to a refrigerated cargo vessel.
He was jumping up and down to go flying. We flew another wobbly, “wooden stick” departure from our boat, and headed to Wewak Airfield, less than five minutes away.
But if I had hoped for a more relaxed performance, I was to be disappointed. We flew pattern after pattern, and still he applied the Death Grip from Hell. You could feel his peculiarly lumpy inputs throughout the whole Airframe. The slip ball seemed to be an irritant to him, flying in balance a frivolous irrelevancy, and every other approach to the ground was terminated with a horrible nose up attitude. He was determined to flare as if he was flying a Piper Cub tail dragger aircraft. And I learned that his flight time included six hundred hours fixed wing, of which a respectable proportion was indeed on a tail dragger fixed winger. I wasn’t surprised when he told me. As a dual rated Flight Instructor, I could already tell. His sense of balance was terrible, and many times I pitied our poor tail boom. There were stresses being applied there that were really testing the design.
Round and round we went, and his stress levels were rising. His mood was also deteriorating. He was getting ratty, and snarly. I called for a halt, a long break, and after lunch we went at it again. This time I thought we would do some slope landings. That involves some very basic helicopter handling, which is taught from the early days of flight training on. I typically would not solo a basic student (somebody going for his first Private Pilot’s License) until I felt there was a good basic understanding of the risks associated with improper techniques applied on a sloping surface. In a nut shell: you can roll the entire helicopter over in a heart beat. I’ve seen a student get killed in a Bell 206 doing precisely that. By the time a pilot goes through his Commercial Course, I expect a high standard of proficiency.
I therefore picked an intermediate slope for him to demonstrate his skills to me.
He nearly rolled it over so many times, and I had to come on the controls so frequently, that it was the worst slope landing session I can recall ever being involved with. I don’t remember having one of my former Private Pilot students ever make quite such a regurgitated dog’s dinner of trying to land on a slope. The worst of it all was that he was “intermittent” at best at reliably handing over the controls. I had to over power him several times with sheer, brute force.
And so on and so forth.
He was capable of saying “you have control!” and STILL hanging on like Grim Death.

What do you do? If there is one trick I have learned as a Flight Instructor, then it is to never scold a student. When things are really bad, I mean “really bad”, I mean “shockingly bad”, then the best thing a Flight Instructor can do is to take the student quietly aside, and ask HIM the question: “Well, my friend, how do YOU feel you did? Tell me about what YOU think?”
In most cases, the student will beat himself up much worse than you would. And what you’re looking for there, is to see if he is aware himself as to what is going on. Very often, as a Flight Instructor, you will listen to a remarkably intelligent self analysis. That’s great. Now you know HE knows. And now it becomes easy. All you have to say is: “Good! I’m glad to see you have a very good awareness of what is going on. That is really helpful. And actually, it’s not as bad as you think. I see some real positives here…..” In a sense, you let the student beat himself down a bit, and then you build him back up. Mostly, it works very well. Mostly.
I tried it with our friend. Quietly, sympathetically, I put the question to him.
“Well, my friend, how do YOU feel you did? Tell me about what YOU think?”
There was a pause. A silence. He weighed it all up carefully.
I held my breath.
“Well”, he said eventually. “I guess…”
He was looking resigned.
“I guess I knew I was going to be in trouble when you said we were going to do slope landings…”
Why was that, I asked him.
“Well, because… you see… I’ve NEVER DONE THEM BEFORE…”
I was lost for words. I tried hard to formulate my sentence:
“You mean.. you mean you have a COMMERCIAL HELICOPTER License and you have NEVER been shown how to perform slope landings…??”
He shook his head.

And if you find that somewhat… stunning…(I know I did)…consider this pilot was positively hell bent on being employed ASAP as a Pilot on a ‘rock and rolling’ Tuna Boat. Not exactly the most stable of platforms!
Factor in our mutual boss, equally hell bent on getting him working ASAP on his own, as a pilot-mechanic, unsupervised, on his own boat…
And only yours truly, the Check Airman as it were, standing in between!

How is this possible? And what lessons might we learn about the suitability (or otherwise) of helicopter pilots for tuna boat work? Just because a fellow has a “Commercial Helicopter License” in his wallet, does that mean he “automatically” possesses the skills AND THE KNOWLEDGE to do the job safely??
I make a big deal out of this, because I have visited (many times) with tuna boat helicopter companies with a long history of fatal accidents and serious injuries. It was (and is) a common attitude (frequently expressed) that:

“If you have a Commercial, and you get killed, well, it’s your risk, your fault, tough cheddar, hard cheese, so long Amigo.”

I’ve stood by one time, during a heated argument at the Hansen Helicopters hangar on the island of Guam. I took no part in it, but just quietly witnessed a Hansen maintenance employee, (a grizzly old mechanic, not a pilot) really, really getting into it with two pilots. Ranged on one side was a sneering, condescending attitude. Namely that any guy who gets killed out there, is just an incompetent idiot. That anybody with a Commercial Helicopter Pilot’s License should be able to hack it with “no problem”. The implication was that it was “easy flying”. On the other side, were two angry pilots, an Aussie and a Kiwi, who were furiously disagreeing. It got heated and nasty. And loud. I wondered if there were going to be blows.

How can you NOT view tuna helicopter flying as “serious shit”? I have a whole section elsewhere on likely tuna helicopter accident scenarios, and I firmly believe a safety education and safety awareness program is a vital, critical ingredient. You can be a well meaning, sincere, safety orientated pilot, you can be an experienced helicopter pilot elsewhere, and in the Tuna Fields, bad Juju can sneak up on you, and in a heart beat, if you’re not really clued up, kill you deader than a cold Tuna lying on the working deck. I have some faces floating before me, looking down on me, nodding a quiet assent, believe me. They belong to dead friends, who ranged from relative novices to a 10,000 hour veteran with -however- little tuna flying experience. I firmly believe 98% of accidents out there are avoidable, with training, knowledge, good maintenance, and a good safety program supported by the Tuna Helicopter Employers…

The case I describe above is not unique. The gaps in knowledge and training, the lack of awareness… I came across that many times.

But let me tweak your brain in another direction for a moment. Put it another way. As of this writing, October 2010, my current employer (of seven years standing) here in the Gulf of Mexico is exhorting us all to strive for “Destination Zero”. A ZERO accident rate. Awesome. Now factor in a fleet of over 270 helicopters, flying in all weathers, ranging from Bell 206, Bell 407, through EC135, up to Sikorsky 76 and Sikorsky S-92. With a total annual flight time of well over 150,000 helicopter hours. Now contemplate the fact that the slightest incident, however seemingly trivial, (never mind a full blown accident) attracts immediate attention. It gets documented, dissected, scrutinized with a microscope. And an errant pilot can find himself facing a board of enquiry very quickly. Yes, the stakes are that high. Insurance, litigation, liability is part of it. But also, the competitive strength of a helicopter company is so often based on its reputation for safety. Hence the drive for ZERO accidents. And today, October 24th 2010, we are still holding to that record this year. There is a healthy Safety Bonus in it for all of us if we can keep the clean score sheet for the rest of this year… Fingers crossed. Toes crossed. Legs crossed. Controls even crossed. Remember the prayer of the Helicopter Pilot:

Please Lord,
Help me not screw up today.
But if I DO so screw up,
Make it so nobody notices but me.
And if they DO so notice,
Probably because I re-designed the helicopter in a novel manner,
(not approved by the manufacturer)
Can you make it that they have a good sense of humor?
Please? Thank you…!

Now let’s take the Tuna Helicopter Industry Safety record. Worldwide, I would guesstimate the total flight hours also well over 150,000 flight hours a year.
How about the accident rate? How about a Tuna “Destination Zero” program?

Here’s an email from a Tuna Pilot buddy of mine. He read the Tuna Manual before he went fishing. According to him (and others), more and more pilots out there end up armed with knowledge they have gained from their Tuna Manual studies. But there is still a small minority of (loud) dissenters, who positively hate the Manual, who have not read it, can’t be bothered to read it, and anyway, “don’t need no stinkin’ manual”.
Here’s the email. I’ve shortened it slightly to protect his I.D.
I laughed when I read it.

Hey Moggy,
to reply to your above message, I agree, it would be good to have a more active Tuna employer participation in what you started.
Since I’ve been out here, just over 8 months now, 9 helicopters have gone down, in which they where all damaged. Its also true that a very few people have hostile views toward your manual, without reading it.
To me, it seems some of the pilots out here have extra inflated ego’s and are probably threatened by someone taking a reasonable, neutral, guiding stance.
What I mean is that some people do stupid shit, think they are the best and don’t like when they read or hear something that makes them question their activities.
Anyway, O well. I do have a couple of questions, if you don’t mind….
If you have any advice for where to go after here I would love to hear it. I will have about 1500 hrs when I’m done.
I hope all is well for you back in the States.

No comment from me….!

You may be inclined to believe that it is “impossible” for a pilot to obtain a US Commercial Helicopter Pilot’s License without being exposed to slope landings. I know it’s hard to believe. In this case, our friend had gone to a school with an in house FAA examiner. Meaning that his Flight Instructor did both his Private and his Commercial training. AND… subsequently “examined” him.
I know. It’s criminal. It’s just a cynical money machine. But… hold on here now! What other knowledge gaps existed in our friend’s experience? If YOU had experienced what I had, would YOU be digging further if you were the Check Airman? And did I find more ‘stuff’? Well….
But before I get to that later, Here’s another email from a reader of mine. Again, I have changed the email a little bit to protect I.D.
I respect this young man for his very mature recognition of his own failures. But don’t you feel for him as well? See what you think of HIS employer…!

Hi Francis,

I thought you might like to hear about my recent career ending crash in the fishing ground….
I was thrown on the (name of boat) in Honiara with zero training, and just quietly I only had just under 200 hours TT. I was quite shocked at the condition of the machine but I was keen to do a good job. The captain was less than friendly and I found myself very much in the deep end. I was allowed to fly the helicopter for about 40 minutes by myself once we in the fishing ground and after that we started spotting. Before the crash I did about 25 hours of actual tuna spotting, usually with the captain.
The crash flight was the fourth sortie of the day (almost 6 hours), I was orbiting a school of fish at 1000ft with the captain after about 30 mins flight time. We continued to orbit for about 15 mins while the ship positioned itself before deploying the net, the captain finally gave the ‘let go’ and the skiff boat starting doing it’s thing. A few minutes later we were still orbiting and the school suddenly made a bee line for the gap between the skiff boat and the ship. The captain starting SCREAMING and I entered a gentle auto while turning left, this obviously wasn’t good enough and he started REALLY screaming, he was stamping his feet on the ground and generally having a hissy fit. So I stupidly entered a sharp ‘corkscrew’ dive, which I had never done before. The wind was only blowing about 3-4 knots so I decided I would flare down wind at the bottom so we would be facing the school and the ship. I remember thinking that I am in a perfect situation for the onset of VRS so I really tried to lower my ROD. I pulled in a bunch of collective and a few seconds later I flared at about 40 feet, the cyclic felt ‘sloppy’ and it was obvious I was in a VRS situation. I entered auto and I managed to cushion the landing a bit but we still landed quite hard. The rear left skid leg broke on landing ( it had previously been damaged in a roll over accident a few years before and it still had not been repaired properly) and the tail rotor hit the water and I immediately closed the throttle while the captain yanked on the rotor brake for some reason. By that time the rear compartment was filling with water and we started tipping over backwards. We jumped out and we were picked up straight away by the chief engineer in the speed boat. Luckily neither me or the captain were injured.
I still swear my ROD before the flare was not very high but obviously I can’t know for sure (the lack of a ROC/Descent indicator didn’t help things). I think I got caught in that dirty downward airflow from the ‘corkscrew’ dive. That and the fact that I was still descending at least a bit and the fact that I had a tail wind made it a perfect situation for the onset of VRS.
I have been told many times over that I should have tried to fly out of the dirty air, maybe I should have tried, but it happened in the blink of an eye and I did not think it would be possible considering I descended while I was in VRS and I had to descend before I could apply forward cyclic, I was only at 40 feet when I flared.
The aircraft sunk ‘by itself’, I called (name of employer) and my mechanic and myself told them honestly what happened. The next day we hitched a ride on another ship and we were back in Honiara within three days. To cut a very, very long story short I am back home in (country) and I am about to started training towards a completely different career.
I did love it while it lasted and I really hope I can go back to it, I meet some real characters out there and I can see why you loved it so much.

Anyway keep up the good work, your manual definitely helped me believe it or not Smile

No comment from me….

Francis Meyrick

(to be continued…)

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on May 6, 2015, 3:41 pm

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